Building blocks of basic backhand technique

Disc golf is still enough of a niche sport that by the time most of us are ensnared (like a putter caught in the inner chains of a Mach III) by an obsession to get better, we’ve already been heavily exposed to other more mainstream sports.

That reality has definite advantages for me, as an instructor, because it helps when I’m teaching a disc golf concept related to technique (or even mental stuff) to be able to draw analogies between disc golf techniques and those of other more familiar games. If someone has already learned a similar motion, it’s easier to recall that motion and apply it to disc golf than to learn it completely from scratch.

Case in point, my first remote session with a novice who was already loving disc golf but as of yet unable to throw as straight or far as his friends. We’ll call him Lou.

Without actually watching Lou throw live and in person, I had to rely mostly on the spoken and written words we exchanged on the subject in choosing my advice for him. However, I knew a couple other things that would likely prove useful.

First, players in the earlier stages of the disc golf learning curve usually make many of the same common mistakes and therefore see many of the same negative results from those mistakes. Second, Lou has talked on many occasions of being an avid softball player, so I knew right away that he would be able to easily understand the comparisons I like to use between throwing a disc golf disc using the backhand technique and proper batting technique in baseball.

Weight transfer and balance

One of the most common mistakes I see players of all levels make with the backhand shot has to do with transferring weight from the back foot to the front foot.

disc golf lessons
Figure 1: The stick in this photo illustrates the line on which players pull back the disc and throw that results in shots that pop in the air and don’t go very far.

A good backhand throw derives most of its power from the back, torso, and legs rather than just the arm. In this way (and some others, which we’ll cover soon) throwing a disc backhand is just like swinging a baseball bat with the goal of hitting the ball with any kind of power.

In both cases you’re standing at a 90-degree angle to the direction you want to throw/hit. And in both cases you want your weight to shift from your back foot to your front foot at a precise critical time. With baseball, that time is a fraction of a second before the bat hits the ball. With disc golf, it’s right as the disc is passing your body mid-throw. Any sooner in either case and you’ll rob yourself of all that power you had coiled up from your legs and torso.

Using the baseball analogy, think of what a hitter looks like when he’s way out front on a change-up or curve ball. And in the case of a backhand throw in disc golf, you’ll also likely mess up your balance and lose accuracy as well as distance.

Figure 2: The stick in this photo shows a proper line for a typical backhand shot intended to fly flat and straight. Note how the stick is parallel to the ground.

Most often, the reason that disc golfers have weight transfer and balance problems is because they try to incorporate a run-up into their drives and longer fairway shots too soon. You’ve heard the saying “You have to learn to walk before you can run.” In disc golf it’s more like “before you can run-up.” Later in this post you’ll learn a great exercise for “learning to walk,” in terms of throwing a proper backhand shot.

Reach back, line, and angle

Another parallel between hitting a baseball and throwing backhand is a literal parallel. In baseball the best chance a hitter has to hit a line drive is by swinging fairly level — or parallel to the ground. The big uppercut may seem attractive to those swinging for the fences but, more often than not, results in lazy fly balls or pop-ups. In disc golf the natural tendency (usually ingrained from previous experience ‘flipping’ a Frisbee disc) is to throw on a low-to-high arc that is much like an uppercut in baseball — and the results are predictably similar.

Those throws that go way higher than you wanted (and much shorter) are the product of dropping the disc down to knee level when you pull the disc back and releasing it at eye level. There are, of course, times when you want this type of line, but not often, and rarely as exaggerated. For most throws the flatter, the better.

Figure 3: In this picture demonstrating a good, flat disc angle, note how the disc and stick are both parallel to the ground.

This goes for the angle of the ‘nose’, or front, of the disc as well.

A good flat, straight throw depends not only on the line on which you launch the disc, but also the angle in which the disc is held in your hand. While the line of your shot primarily affects the elevation trajectory of your shot (see last paragraph), the angle at which you’re holding and throwing the disc will affect whether it is released with a left or right turn.

If you are right-handed and your main issue is the disc always cutting immediately to the left, you’re likely holding and throwing the disc at an angle where the edge you’re gripping is much higher than the opposite edge. If you’re trying to get a nice flat, straight flight, both edges should be the same distance from the ground from reach-back to release. The follow-through should reinforce this angle as well.

Work on keeping the disc on a line and angle that stay parallel to the ground – somewhere between your waist and sternum — from the time you pull the disc all the way back to the time you release it. You can do some fine tuning later, to get the specialized flights you want — after you’ve mastered flat and straight.

Figure 4: In this front view of the reach-back phase of a backhand throw, note how the player’s torso and shoulders are almost completely rotated away from the target. The torque generated by this rotation is where much of the power for the throw comes from.

Speaking of pulling the disc back, that’s the final basic building block I’ll cover here. Most players that are having issues with distance (as in, not enough), in addition to whatever other flaws they have, don’t hardly reach back with the disc at all. It’s very common for a player to keep the disc close to his/her body or curl back it around the body rather than reaching all the way back on the flat, level line I just described. This one change is often enough to increase distance by 20 percent or more, and also can act as a catalyst for improved weight transfer as well.

To go to the baseball example one more time, recall the first time someone taught you to hit. One of the first things you heard was “keep your hands back.” In baseball and in disc golf, reaching back as far as possible generates more speed on the throw/swing, and speed equals power. Pretty simple physics, really.

Figure 5: This photo shows the starting point of the 1-2-3 exercise. Note the extension of the disc forward and how the weight is on the front foot with the back heel lifted.

Here is the way I always teach new players to throw a backhand shot.

I don’t even talk about run-up at this point, for reasons I’ve already discussed. Even if you’ve played for years you may want to give it a try and see if it results in improved balance, distance, accuracy and eventually, scores:

  1. Stand sideways to your target, like you normally would for a typical backhand throw.
  2. Extend the disc forward on the line on which you’re aiming, with your weight on your front foot.
  3. Pull the disc back on a flat, straight line about belly-button height, as far back as you can, transferring your weight from front foot to back foot just as the disc passes your body. At this point:
    1. Your arm should be completely straightened out, and your back should be almost completely turned to the target.
    2. Your weight should be completely on your back foot, so much so that your front foot is on ‘tip-toe’ and even slightly pivoted to accommodate as complete a reach-back as possible.

    Figure 6: The weight should transfer between feet (in both directions) right as the disc passes your torso. This timing is the key to proper balance during the throw, and it’s why learning it before incorporating a run-up is so important
  4. Now that you know what to do, you’re ready for the 1-2-3-throw tempo trick. Bring the disc forward again as in step 2, then pull the disc all the way back as in step 3, being conscious of your weight shifting from front to back as the disc moves from front to back. When the disc reaches full extension, silently count one in your head (or say it out loud if you prefer).
  5. Without a pause, using a smooth tempo (like a practice swing in golf), go forward again, thinking about weight transfer and keeping the disc on a flat, level line, and when you reach the point where you’re fully extended forward, pull back all the way again and count two. Then repeat forward and backward once more (three) and launch your throw on the same line, with the same balance transfer you just reinforced three times.
    1. Be sure to launch your throw from the point your disc reaches the fully-extended back position, with your arm straightened out directly behind you exactly 180 away from the target.
    2. Don’t hesitate once you reach that fully-back position and count 3. It should be 1, 2, 3 THROW! There may be a tendency to let your arm creep forward slowly toward your body, but throwing from the full reach-back is key to leveraging your whole body in the throw rather than just your arm. It also is one of the keys for maximizing distance.

The idea is get the most into a throw without a run-up, while getting the feeling and repetition of a rhythm that incorporates proper balance transfer. It’s a little different for everyone, depending on all kinds of factors, but by doing this out in a field you’ll come up with something that works best for you that you can repeat when it counts.

Figure 7: In this photo taken at the farthest point of the reach-back, note the straightened arm and how the weight is all on the back foot with the front foot pivoted and front heel off the ground.

After essentially hearing this same information on a phone call, ‘Lou’ went out and applied the lesson. He dropped the run-up and instead went with a one-step motion, and focused on  keeping the disc on a straight, flat (“lower”) line, and following through. In his words, “discs actually did what they probably are meant to do.”

Building anything successfully depends on a solid foundation or framework. Get the basics of your backhand right first, and things will only get better from that point on.

On the Web

There are now several good, professionally-produced video tutorial clips out there that show many of the techniques I described. On the plus side, they cover things I didn’t mention like grip and follow-through, but in my opinion they don’t spend enough time going into detail about the building blocks I described above.

My friend and co-star of the short-lived Discmasters TV show, Avery Jenkins, discusses backhand throws as part of the Discmania Deep in the Game series.

I also have found the clips produced by Discraft to be pretty informative and accurate. I noticed in this one hosted by Scott Papa that he uses a baseball analogy as well, stressing the importance of follow-through. And in this older clip, another pal and Discmasters co-star Nate Doss stresses good technique, proper balance, and practice.

Nine secrets of the women of disc golf

The ladies who played in the advanced division at the Masters Cup this past weekend. Pictured are: Front — Anna Caudle. Second row, from left, Victoria McCoy, Michelle Chambless, Lacey Kimbell, Cyndi Baker; and third row, from left, Christine Hernlund, Jenny Umstead, and Crissy White. (Photo by Alex Hegyi).

OK, maybe the title is a little misleading. Calling them “secrets” is overdoing it a bit, and this is about much more than that.

I spent some time last weekend talking to female competitors at the Amateur Masters Cup presented by DGA in Santa Cruz, Calif., and some of their answers might be new and useful information to the guys who play disc golf.

But are they secrets?

What’s definitely not a secret is the fact that disc golf is, and always has been, a sport played predominately by males. The breakdown of competitors in this A-Tier PDGA sanctioned event illustrates this point perfectly, as only 11 of the 158 registered participants were in female divisions. That’s less than 10 percent.

The eyeball test anytime you’re playing a recreational round on your local course will tell you that that ratio holds true in non-tournament settings as well.

So what’s the deal?

After watching the sport grow and develop over the past 25 years, I’ve got my own theories. For instance, in the early days of DeLaveaga — back in the late 1980s and early 1990s — seeing a woman on the course was rare enough to stop a guy mid-throw to ask a playing partner if he saw her, too. They had to make sure she wasn’t a mirage (or an hallucination, depending on the player). I later learned from the first female DeLa pioneers that a main deterrent was the lack of a restroom on site at the time — not even a porta-potty. Not a big deal for the average guy, but enough to keep many women away.

While not all courses are as remote and facility-less as DeLa, back then plenty of them were similarly in open spaces. And besides the lack of basic facilities, there was also an non-policed “Wild West” feel to many courses. I have a notion that many women felt these courses were just unsafe enough — or at least could be — to discourage them from giving disc golf a try.

 

Finally, according to golfsolutions.com (part of the Golf Channel empire), only 22 percent of ball golfers worldwide are female. So disc golf seems to be repeating the pattern of its older and more venerable ancestor.

These points add up to the fact that although disc golf may be different now than it was two decades ago, when a lopsided male/female ratio was firmly established, it self-perpetuates (the heavy guy-majority keep bringing mostly their guy friends out to play) over time.

In short, changing an established trend is hard to do, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Just look at ball golf.

Kari Rose tees off on the 10th hole at Pinto Lake, where the Daisy Chains Women’s Global Event will be held. Rose is in the pre-registered field. (Photo by John Hernlund)

As stated earlier, disc golfers have ambitious goals for growing a sport that is better in every other way possible, so the question for today is how do we get more women playing disc golf?

In searching for solutions, I sought out women who are already hooked — the female competitors of this year’s Amateur Master’s Cup.

Suzie Weigand, a local who won the Women’s Masters division by six strokes, has played disc golf for five years. She said she primarily goes out with her husband but is playing more now because of the organized “ladies days” in Santa Cruz.

Weigand said gaining momentum is important for getting more women in the game.

“When more women start playing, it’ll mushroom because it’s such an accessible activity,” she said.

As for accelerating momentum, Weigand offered the common sense strategy of “starting when they’re younger, with youth programs and high school and college leagues.”

Chrissy White, originally from Nebraska and now living in Kingsville, Calif., is a relatively new player and has put that approach into action. Her seven-year-old daughter Haley tagged along during the first round of the Masters Cup. Haley said she, too, plays disc golf.

“A lot of women that have children don’t have a sitter to watch them while they play with their husbands or boyfriends,” White said. “Bring the kids along and not only do you get to play, but the kids are going to pick it up too.”

As Victoria McCoy, of Concord, Calif., walked to the first tee, she said a key is also organizing more events that focus on women and support women. Her husband was with her for this event, carrying her bag.

This idea seems like a good one as it’s one thing to tell women they are welcome to join the sport that has, historically, only considered the needs and interests of male participants. It’s a different approach to take the sport we lover and tweak things to produce and experience that appeals particularly to women.

That’s why this Saturday’s PDGA Women’s Global Event is so special. It could mark a seminal moment in women’s disc golf.

The Daisy Chains tournament, which is one of 41 scheduled as part of the Women’s Global Event, will be run in Santa Cruz and is headed by Christine Hernlund. She reiterated the approach and stressed the intention to give the event a decidedly female feel.

“We are trying to build a tournament experience that not only avoids the common flaws of other tournaments but also has so many extras and attention to detail that the women will expect more from tournaments in the future,” Hernlund said. “The artistic and creative energy our local women have poured into this event will showcase what is possible when we women unite our strengths in a collaborative effort.”

This is all great and it’s nice to know about getting more women in disc golf, but what about those nine secrets of the women of disc golf?

Also know that these tie in directly with the main theme — increasing the numbers. You see, the last question posed to each woman was “what is the thing male disc golfers do or don’t do — on purpose or, more likely, out of ignorance — that ticks you off the most?”

Maybe if guys know what these items are, we can stop doing them and hopefully increase the odds of more women getting hooked on the game.

The nine items are:

  • They give us, especially beginners, heavy discs.
  • They get intimidated when we out-drive them, even if it’s once every 100 throws, and will often say something stupid.
  • Some of them use really foul language and can’t keep their temper in check.
  • They say “nice shot” when I know it was a really crappy shot.
  • I hate bad attitudes. Have fun with the game.
  • Stop coaching us all the time — we know what we’re doing.
  • Give credit for the good shorter shots and congratulate women when we’re doing our best.
  • Appreciate the women that come out and enjoy the sport with the men.
  • Stop looking at our butts!

That last reply was followed by much laughter as the group headed to their drives after teeing off hole one.

It would seem women do have more fun with disc golf.

 

This post was written for and originally appeared at rattlingchains.com.